Never Let Schooling Interfere With Your Education

When I was in high school, which was only a decade ago, it was a better time than today. While I wasn’t enrolled in the district I currently teach in, I’ve seen pictures of kids then and I see them now, and today is clearly more oppressive. We thought we had it bad in high school, but we didn’t have security guards at my school – and this was the Age of Columbine, an event I watched unfold from my seat in Sophomore English.

It was a time when vending machines were accessible, including soda machines, and I was lucky enough to go to a high school where my teachers didn’t mind if I ate/drank in class. And, wow: did I ever eat/drink. By lunch, I’d packed away a pair of Mountain Dew, plus a bag of cookies and Cheetos, and that was after I ate three bowls of cereal at home for breakfast. On top of my bag lunch, I’d buy a couple slices of pizza and a few more cookies in the cafeteria. The afternoon was like the morning, eating maybe another bag of Cheetos or cookies and drinking a couple more Mountain Dew.

My daily food budget was easily $8/day, retail. Now, I had an after-school job, but I wasn’t looking to dump out half my wages in food. Fortunately, I’d always had an entrepreneurial mindset; by my senior year I noticed that my fellow classmates drank Mountain Dew just like I did and it was always gone by the end of lunch. That’s almost half the day where a market demand is not being met by any supply – I set out to capitalize.

Buying a Cube of soda for $6, I was getting cans of Dew for $.25/can, holding it in my locker, and selling it back off for $.50 – the same price as the machines. I’d keep a small cooler in my locker, for myself, or for anyone willing to pay double at 2:00pm for a cold Dew. In the course of a day, with my habit combined with others, I went through a Cube easily. That meant making four or five bucks a day, plus free Dew, taking my $40/week costs down to a mere ten bucks!

Back in January, I started substituting at Pulaski County Special School District – I am back in Little Rock for a short time, and it was an ideal job for me to take for a few months. I am at Joe T. Robinson High School more than any other school, and I’ve gotten to know it, its staff, and its students, fairly well. In this specific piece, I’d like to talk about business in schools.

First, recognize that there is a black market anywhere and everywhere. At RHS, the name of the game all semester has been “candy.” For $50, a student can purchase 88 different full-size pieces of candy at Sam’s Club; the variety pack costs the student $.57 per piece, each of which sells at a flat dollar, a competitive and reasonable rate. While I only saw one student capitalizing in January, I saw a dozen by April – making money is often contagious.

And it’s entirely understandable. I know students who have unloaded a hundred pieces in a day to a school population of around 500 kids, making them $40 in the 450 minutes they’re in school. Averaging half that volume a day, you’re selling to 10% of the student body and pulling as much as the end of the week as your friends who work after school 20 hours a week. With an argument like that, why wouldn’t you do it? Are schools really going to say that hallway candy deals distract a student more than turning their 35-hour school week into a 55-hour school/work week?

One thing that comes to mind, for me, is the idea of education. Mark Twain is frequently quoted as saying, “Never let schooling interfere with your education,” but actually, it was Grant Allen. I digress. To me, it’s pretty impressive that a kid can pull even a bill a week selling candy at school in-between class, which most of them do.

So, does this interfere with education? Not that I have seen, but I wouldn’t discount the possibility. In my opinion, allowing students to eat/drink in class (within reason) is an obvious morale tactic: more than that, it’s one more thing that can be taken away if they’re bad – privileges have many uses. Even if a kid, in class, said, “Hey, can I get a pack of Skittles?” and a deal went down, it would take about as long as asking to borrow a sheet of paper, or countless other things students do in class all the time in the middle of class. It’s a distraction, without question. But we’re not banning eating candy/chips/whatever in class – that’s still “teacher’s discretion” – it’s strictly the sale of goods – so it’s obviously not the goods themselves that the school finds issue with, but the act of buying/selling.

Obviously there are countless reasons to ban the sale of anything unauthorized in school, which is precisely what Robinson did, starting May 1. I’m sure that rule will stick next year and sale of everything will be prohibited. But the black market that already exists will continue to exist. I don’t mean candy. I mean kids lifting phones, mp3 players, headphones – Hell: I’ll bet they’d steal spools of copper wiring – and selling it off on the Back Hallway Black Market. Every community has someone you can go to if you want to buy/sell something stolen – schools are no exception.

In the case of schools, the thieves also tend to fence their own goods. I never stole or fenced in high school, but I was a businessman; the more money and power I acquired, the more I was able to do – anything from offering loans to contracted personal character assassinations or even physical jobs on people or property. And, I know, every school has these elements, because I went to school in a rural area in northern Pennsylvania and we were doing the same stuff then, and I’d be willing to bet kids have been pulling this shit since the dawn of time.

Here’s the thing. I know you can’t have kids selling stuff in school. It could be stolen – it can lead to major distraction – and the repayment of debt is the biggest issue. School is like prison. The tough guy gets respect; the money guy gets respect; you do what you’re told all day, moving from place to place when bells ring; if people step out of line, they are either corrected by the institution itself or by the general population of the institution (“street justice” is very common in schools). But, what’s the biggest violence-related issue in prison? “Drugs.” But, not actually. The answer is, “Debt.” Now, debt very frequently comes from drugs, so it’s easy to see that correlation – but in school, it’s not drug-debt. No one gets shanked at school over five bucks in cookies. But I’ve witnessed kids getting their asses kicked over twenty bucks they bet in a dice game (a practice that is straight-up illegal and yet also happens all the time).

I had kids’ heads bounced off hoods of cars in the high school parking lot for less than that, when they’d told me to go fuck myself and that they wouldn’t pay me what was owed. Outside of being contracted for it, violence only resulted from bad behavior, most frequently the nonpayment of debts, but also other instances – like when a guy slapped around my ex-girlfriend (who I hated, but still helped) – I had a unique moral code. Ah, high school. It’s such an interesting time for people to find themselves. The lessons I learned were everywhere. And it continued in college, but that’s another story, buried deep inside this blog, if you can find it.

Here’s what sucks about this new business-banning rule, though. I’ve taught these kids, who are just selling candy – not doing anything illegal or that might cause major disruption – kids who don’t know anything or care at all about business – and I’m teaching them all about business math and economic theory. Kids who couldn’t give a damn about math or social sciences suddenly care about how much money they’re making/spending or when/where other kids are more likely to buy, and why. It’s really cool to have some application for things like this, because otherwise teaching business and economics to 16-year-olds can be a real snooze. So it can be a great teaching tool. But here’s a point I am reluctant to make, that I have to make.

Realize that the school, itself, has an economy. It’s not just money, though money plays a big role at some point. Things are traded, stolen, bought, sold, and everything in-between. Even school institutions do it, such as the case with the school cafeteria, which sells goods at a comparable markup to these Now-Illicit Sugar Dealers. You can get a pack of PopTarts for $1.50, and they cost around half that at the store; it’s actually a 10% higher mark-up than black market candy. However, if you have five kids selling 50 pieces of candy a day, that’s $250 a day getting spent in school without any regulation or (the more important part, in my opinion) the system making any money off it. The school can’t sell candy to students, but you can bet that they view the dollar spent on candy to be better served buying their pastries, not out of any altruistic or nutritional sense, but precisely the same as any other system out there: it wants to get its piece of the pie, and will take as large of a slice as it can.

In the end, dedicated students will continue to sell things. Larger items (food) will be harder to offload, as I said, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a kid who made a hundred bucks a week selling candy is going to stop enjoying the lifestyle they do: they’ll just change up the game…maybe become a fence for stolen electronics, in which case you’ve taken a good kid and turned him into a criminal – reminds me of American drug law. I wonder how it will affect the market, and whether it will result in greater criminality. Once more legitimate means of making money no longer exist, people will turn to illegitimate ways of doing it; that is precisely what happens in every low-income neighborhood on the planet.

Whoever you are, you need to start thinking of school as a system. A town. A prison. A community. Whatever gets you there, get there, because not recognizing the complexity of the social structure, authority structure, economic structure, and dismissing high school as “not the real world” is done at your peril.

Leave a Reply